When war broke out, the then 27-year- old Elizabeth ‘Dolly’ Shepherd, from Potters Bar in Hertfordshire, was a recently retired professional parachutist.
The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was formed to allow women to take over as many auxiliary roles as possible, thus freeing up manpower for service on the front. Prewar, intrepid parachutist Dolly Shepherd had been serving with the Women’s Emergency Corps, but she soon transferred as a driver/mechanic to the new WAAC. She had to pass a Royal Automobile Club exam, but when she got to France she faced a further test when she arrived at the Queen Mary Camp at Calais.
We were marched down to the garage and paraded in front of the captain. He said: “What can you do?” The works officer, a Lieutenant Walton, he said: “You, go across to the workshop. I want you to put a new sleeve valve in a Daimler!” “Yes, sir.” Can you imagine it really? There was me, there was the Daimler and all the men promptly left off work and all sat round. I undid it nicely, screw by screw, cleaned it out, did what I had to do, put it back, and it went! Everyone cheered.
But of course they didn’t know that that was the very thing that I had to take for my exam in the RAC – that very engine, that very job on the Daimler! If they’d chosen another car, well, I suppose I would have coped, but not as well as I did with the Daimler, because it’s a very tricky job putting on a new sleeve valve.
Dolly and the other women had to put up with considerable resentment from some of the driver mechanics they were brought in to replace.
You see it meant that eight men drivers had got to go further up the line – and so of course they didn’t like us a bit at first. Very often we’d find our tyres flat or various things done. We’d just grin and bear it. Then one day I was out on the road going to St Omer and I found a general’s car stopped by the roadside and naturally I got out to speak to the chauffeur. I said to him: “Well, what’s the matter?” So he said: “I don’t know, I’ve tried everything! We’ve sent for a breakdown lorry!” So I said: “Do you mind if I have a look?” He said: “You can, but you won’t be able to do anything, I’m sure of that!”
At that time, we wore long hair and we had invisible hairpins you know. So I get out one of my hairpins and start fiddling about and to this day I don’t know what I did! I suppose a bit of sand or something must have been in one of the jets of the carburettor, or something like that. Anyhow, I wound it up and it went! That same night there was a cup of milk left out for me. As the men gradually had to go up the front, they didn’t mind it so much then. We were all in. We were a very, very friendly garage.
“Of course they didn’t like us a bit at first. Very often we’d find our tyres flat or various things done. We’d just grin and bear it”
An illustration of a chauffeur from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps starting an officer’s car